Bar Hopping Rust Lake

The signing of the Wilderness Act of 1964 legally mandated the preservation of designated wilderness areas throughout the United States. Section 2 (c) elegantly defined wilderness to be "…an area where the earth and its community of life are untrammeled by man" as well as "…an area of undeveloped federal land retaining its primeval character and influence, without permanent improvements or human habitation, which is protected and managed so as to preserve its natural conditions." In regards to managing these wilderness areas, two contradictory phrases emerge from this definition: "untrammeled by man" and "natural conditions." They may not seem to be inherently contradictory, but even with minimal human activity, over time the idea of "wild" and "natural" have begun to clash.

View from Rust Lake, Part of the West Chichagof-Yakobi Wildernes

In order for an area to be wild, it must be unfettered by human control and manipulation. Wilderness areas, however, are frequented by visitors whose visits, sometimes quite negatively, impact the area. As a result of all this human interaction with wilderness, native species, patterns and ecological processes change. So the question arises, in these circumstances, where the natural conditions of the wilderness have been unsuccessfully preserved, should people enter these areas and attempt to restore them to their natural condition?

Ecological restoration is defined by the Society for Ecological Restoration as an "intentional activity that initiates or accelerates the recovery of an ecosystem with respect to its health, integrity and sustainability." Thus, restoration with its innate quality will bring conservationists into wilderness areas, compromising the wild aspect of the wilderness. Still, if restoration is not pursued, the naturalness of the area may be further diminished, as native ecosystems degrade. So, herein lies the management dilemma for restoring wilderness—striking the balance between wild and natural. The vague definition of wilderness adds to the management conundrum, as what aspect of wilderness takes priority (being "wild" or "natural) is up for interpretation.

Self-timer group photo in a large cave found at Rust Lake

The Tongass, with 18 wilderness areas spanning 5,746,000 acres, presents a unique vignette of this dilemma. Recently, a group consisting of Scott Harris (SCS's Conservation Science Director), Kitty Labounty (SCS board member and Botany Professor at University of Alaska Southeast), Jen McNew (Botany Intern) and myself ventured to Rust Lake, located in the West Chichigof Wilderness area, to take our stab at wilderness restoration. Our task was to locate and eradicate non-native dandelions (Taraxacum officnale).

A bee performing its ecological service as a pollinator on this native aster.

This recent trip was the second time that Kitty had been to Rust Lake this summer. The dandelionpopulationwas present but not overwhelmingly so. During our three days at Rust Lake we pulled over 1,000 dandelions from gravel bars along the Rust Lake stream. One thousand plants may seem like a lot, but it is likely that your backyard has over 100 individual dandelion plants. Still, dandelions are well adapted to distributehundreds of seeds great distances and are capable of outcompeting the native plants at Rust Lake. This is why we were motivated to manage the population. That being said, the native flora, including monkey flower (Mimulus guttatus) and alpine bog swertia (Swertia perennis), currently appear unharmed. Thus, with two trips per year to Rust Lake to pull dandelions, the native ecosystem will likely flourish.

Rust Lake offers another possible wilderness restoration project, because it has a "tap" for a hydroelectric plant that used to provide power to the historic Chichagof mine. The hydroelectric plant and mine are both inoperative, but the tap continues to function, significantly lowering the Lake's water level below its natural level. In fact, the water level is so low that our floatplane pilot remarked that landing in Rust Lake is "always an experiment." Plugging this spigot appears to be a straightforward project that would not be too difficult, but go a long way in restoring Rust Lake to its natural condition. This brings me back to my original point, what takes priority? Restoring the lake to its natural condition? Or keeping it "untrammeled" by human activity?

Our float plane departing Rust Lake after we landed

The majority of my knowledge stems from learning about and working to restore highly degraded environments. Here in Southeast Alaska, I have spent the bulk of my time monitoring restoration of forests and streams in areas that were once clear-cut. The idea of restoring wilderness vastly differs from these kinds of restoration projects. These areas are not completely degraded by the interruptions of humans. These areas are the last stronghold of what once covered the earth—natural and unhampered ecosystems. The unique habitats found at Rust Lake include many magnificent sub-alpine wildflowers that must be protected from weed invasion. Wilderness areas are the last refuge for countless species and ecosystems and in order to best protect these areas, managers must work to find that balance between wild and natural. The fact that these areas are so extraordinarily sparse is exactly why I think we should cautiously pursue wilderness restoration.

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